Body image

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Culture and body image
This chapter explores the effects of cultural influences on body image.
Cultural prejudice in favor of slenderness and against overweight is
placed in its psychological and sociological context, with a critical
evaluation of the roles of biology and culture in promoting the slim
The idealization of slenderness
In affluent Western societies, slenderness isgenerally associated with
happiness, success, youthfulness, and social acceptability. Being overweight
is linked to laziness, lack of willpower, and being out of control.
For women, the ideal body is slim. For men, the ideal is slenderness and
moderate muscularity. Nonconformity to this ideal has a variety of
negative social consequences. Overweight (for both men and women) is
seen as physicallyunattractive and is also associated with other negative
Tracing the social meanings attached to slimness over the years,
Susan Bordo (2003) shows how, starting at the end of the last century,
excess flesh (for men and women) came to be linked with low
morality, reflecting personal inadequacy or lack of will. This has continued
into the 2000s, where the outward appearance ofthe body
is seen as a symbol of personal order or disorder. Slenderness symbolizes
being in control. The muscled body has recently lost its associations
with manual labor and has become another symbol of willpower,
energy, and control. The firm, toned body is seen as representing success.
Most people do not have slim, toned bodies naturally, so they
have to be constantly vigilant (throughexercise and diet) so as to
conform to current ideals. Bordo argues that the key issue in the
current idealization of slenderness is that the body is kept under
The ideal here is of a body that is absolutely tight, contained,
bolted down, firm.
(Bordo, 2003: 190)
This links the spare, thin, feminine ideal with the solid, muscular,
masculine ideal, since both require the eradicationof loose flesh and
both emphasize firmness. In the preface to the 2003 edition of Unbearable
Weight, and reflecting on the lack of significant change since the
1990s, Bordo notes that the pressure to have a spare, hard body is still
intense in the 2000s despite cultural discourses suggesting that variety
in body shapes is a positive thing. Noting that Beyoncé Knowles and
Jennifer Lopezdwell on how happy they are with their “bodacious
bottoms,” she suggests that having a body that is not thin is acceptable
only if it is worked out and hard:
Sexy booty is OK, apparently, only if it’s high and hard, and if
other body-parts are kept firmly in check. Beyoncé is comfortable
with her body because she works on it constantly. On the road she
does five hundred sit-ups a night.
(Bordo,2003: xxii)
People who do not conform to the slender ideal face prejudice throughout
their life span. Thomas Cash argues that overweight people are
treated differently from childhood. Children prefer not to play with
their overweight peers, and assign negative adjectives to drawings of
overweight people. This prejudice continues into adulthood, when
overweight people tend to be rated asless active, intelligent, hardworking,
successful, athletic, and popular than slim people. People who are
overweight are likely to find more difficulty in renting property, being
accepted by “good” US colleges, and getting jobs than their slimmer
peers (Cash, 1990).
In an early study of stereotypes assigned to different body types,
Marika Tiggemann and Esther Rothblum (1988) asked large groupsof
American and Australian college students about their stereotypes of fat
and thin men and women. They were asked to rate the extent to which
eight qualities were typical of thin men and women and fat men and
women. Men and women in both cultures reported negative stereotypes
of fat people. Although fat people were seen as warmer and friendlier,
confirming the traditional stereotype of...
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